Born just five years after the abolition of slavery, W. E. B. Du Bois died the night before Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. In the many decades between, Du Bois contributed as much to the political and social advancement of African Americans as any other figure. This book offers an accessible brief introduction to the life and times of Du Bois. It takes in his many achievements, such as being the first black man to earn a PhD from Harvard and co-founding the NAACP, and sets them alongside the seismic political changes of the twentieth centurymany of which Du Bois weighed in on, including anti-imperialist and anti-colonial struggles across Asia and Africa. Bill V. Mullen reveals a Du Bois who was focused not just on the immediate question of African American rights, but also took up the question of socialism, the rise of communism, and the complicated interrelationship of capitalism, poverty, and racism. The picture that emerges here is of a powerfully original thinker, fiercely engaged with the political, economic, and social questions of his day never letting up in his struggle to change the world for the better.
About the Author
Bill V. Mullen is professor of English and American studies at Purdue University and the author of Popular Fronts: Chicago and African American Cultural Politics and Afro-Orientalism.
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Childhood, Youth, and Education in an Age of Reform
"I was born by a golden river and in the shadow of two great hills, five years after the Emancipation Proclamation, which began the freeing of American Negro slaves." So begins Chapter VI, "My Birth and Family," of W.E.B. Du Bois's posthumously published Autobiography. Typically, Du Bois renders his life as a symbol of both African-American history and the wider struggle for black freedom. This was a conceit well earned from the beginning of Du Bois's days — February 21, 1868 — to their end, August 28, 1963.
Du Bois descended on his maternal side from the "black Burghardts," Africans descended from Tom Burghardt, born in West Africa around 1730, and stolen by Dutch slave traders for transport to America. Tom grew up in the service of the white Burghardt family in the Hudson Valley area of New York state in the northeastern United States. Enlisted service in the American revolutionary army freed Tom Burghardt from slavery before his death around 1787 (It was not until 1817 that New York, a northern state, formally emancipated its slaves). The Burghardts who followed Tom worked as farmers, barbers, waiters, cooks, housemaids, and laborers. Du Bois's mother, Mary Silvina, was born in 1831. "She gave one the impression of infinite patience, but a curious detachment was concealed in her softness" Du Bois recalled of her in Darkwater. Yet over time she became, recalls Du Bois, a "silent, repressed woman, working at household duties at home, helping now and then in the neighbors' homes."
When Mary was 35, Alfred Du Bois came to her small town of Great Barrington, Massachusetts. First settled by American colonists, Great Barrington was known for being a leisure retreat for the wealthy. Alfred's grandfather was Dr. James Du Bois, a white American physician who while in the Bahamas either took as his slave a concubine or married a free Negro woman. Alexander Du Bois, Alfred's father, lived in Haiti from 1821 to 1830 before settling in New Haven, Connecticut. In 1867, when Alfred arrived in Great Barrington, he was disliked by the black Burghardts. "He had apparently no property and no job" wrote Du Bois, "and they had never heard of the Du Bois family in New York." Nevertheless Mary and Alfred took up a "runaway marriage" and within a year, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was born.
By the time Mary and Alfred married, the area around Great Barrington was transitioning from an agricultural to an industrial and domestic labor economy. Du Bois was born in a home owned by an ex-slave who had like many African-Americans come north after emancipation as part of that transition. Du Bois's racially mixed ancestry made him from birth a curiosity in a country obsessed since the time of slavery with racial identity. For example, slaves were defined as African-Americans with "one drop" of black blood. Thus, "I was of great interest to the whole town" Du Bois wrote. "The whites waited to see 'when my hair was going to curl.'" Despite the fact that Great Barrington's population was less than 5 percent black (census records indicate there were probably about 20 black families in Great Barrington) it was the socio-economic, not racial, conditions of his early upbringing that first stood out to the young Du Bois. "I had, as a child, almost no experience of segregation or color discrimination." Yet Du Bois noted that he and his mother lived "near the edge of poverty" a condition which Du Bois wrote put him in line with many Great Barrington villagers who were poor or lower middle class. Many of these poor were Irish and Eastern European laborers who, like African-Americans, were among the poorest of the Great Barrington community. Du Bois in fact admitted to a certain snobbery in his own attitudes towards some poor immigrants. "I did not then associate poverty or ignorance with color, but rather with lack of opportunity; or more often with lack of thrift." This early moralistic philosophy, characteristic of what Max Weber called the "Protestant ethic," was one which would be challenged by events to come.
Without question the greatest influence on Du Bois's development in his early years was his mother Mary. Du Bois's father Alfred, whose trade was barbering, did not stay with the family long. He was in Du Bois's memory "a dreamer — romantic, indolent, kind, unreliable" and given to writing poetry. Du Bois later speculated that color prejudice, or what might be called "colorism" by the Burghardts may have contributed to his departure — they were lighter-skinned than he. Du Bois also had a brother, Idelbert, about whom he said and wrote very little. Du Bois's Uncle Othello, who he remembered as "probably a bit lazy and given to wassail" died when Du Bois was very young, worsening the family's financial prospects. The lives of these black men were also likely shaped by discrimination; during this period of industrialization in New England black workers were routinely kept out of factory jobs, and black women were generally relegated to work as domestic servants. Yet because she recognized both his academic ability and his discipline, Mary Silvina doted on her son and urged him on in school, all the while working various jobs, including domestic, to support him. When Du Bois was about ten, Mary decided to move them from their shabby home surrounded by bars and gambling clubs to a small home nearer the river, where they lived with Mary's brother William. Du Bois did odd jobs like mowing lawns to contribute to the family income in keeping with his orientation to Puritan thrift and self-sufficiency. This was necessary as Mary's income was barely sufficient to pay the rent and her health was often poor. At one point she suffered a stroke from which she never fully recovered. For a time, Du Bois and Mary lived in his maternal grandfather's home with its "stone fireplace, big kitchen, and delightful woodshed." In 1884, when he was just 16, Mary died, and Du Bois went to live with an aunt.
By all accounts of his childhood, including his own, Du Bois worked and studied more than he socialized; most of his childhood memories involved achievement of small goals of reading or writing, though he did purport to be "a center and sometimes the leader of the town gang of boys." Du Bois took part in ordinary mischief, once nearly sent to reform school for being part of a group of boys who took some grapes from the young of a wealthy white man until his school principal, Frank Hosmer, intervened on his behalf. Hosmer gained Du Bois's affections for advocating for his education and training to become a possible leader of other African-Americans. He helped to place Du Bois in a college preparatory program. Throughout this childhood Du Bois showed little interest in money or career. "Wealth had no particular lure," he wrote.
A memorable episode in the development of race consciousness in Du Bois's childhood is recounted in The Souls of Black Folk when at the age of ten he is jolted by the refusal of a white girl at school into a foreshadowing of his understanding of his difference and distance from the majority world around him:
I remember well when the shadow swept across me. I was a little thing, away up in the hills of New England, where the dark Housatonic winds between Hoosac and Taghkanic to the sea. In a wee wooden school house, something put it into the boys' and girls' heads to buy gorgeous visiting cards — ten cents a package — and exchange. The exchange was merry, till one girl, a taller newcomer, refused my card — refused it peremptorily with a glance. Then it dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others; or like, mayhap, in heart and life, and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil.
This episode was a reminder that Du Bois was often the only African-American in his school classes, and that generic racial prejudice were part of the fabric of Great Barrington town life. Du Bois described his feeling of exclusion for the first time in The Souls of Black Folk as a contempt for those who would demean him. He determined to beat his white counterparts at anything he could, while protecting himself from the demoralization of "silent hatred" some of his black contemporaries came to learn. Looking back on this adolescence, Du Bois was made to feel white supremacy at the most personal level — it was local prejudice rather than hardened racism as he perceived it — and it is clear that he began to draw up inside a reserve to allow him to thrive. As he put it:
Very gradually, — I cannot now distinguish the steps, though here and there I remember a jump or a jot — but very gradually I found myself assuming quite placidly that I was different from other children. At first I think I connected the difference with a manifest ability to get my lessons rather better than most and to recite with a certain happy, almost taunting, blindness, which brought frowns here and there. Then, slowly, I realized that some folks, a few even, even several, actually considered my brown skin a misfortune; once or twice I became painfully aware that some human beings even thought it a crime. I was not for a moment daunted, — although, of course, there were some days of secret tears — rather I was spurred to tireless effort. If they beat me at anything, I was grimly determined to make them sweat for it!
By the age of 15, two distinctive patterns emerged in Du Bois's life that reflect his spirited response to racism. First was his exceptional academic performance. "Gradually I became conscious that in most of the school work my natural gifts and regular attendance made me rank among the best, so that my promotions were regular and expected." Du Bois was in fact something of an academic prodigy, even recognized by his white teachers for his exceptional abilities. The second was an urge to write and publish. In April 1883, Du Bois debuted as Great Barrington correspondent to the New York Globe, an African-American weekly newspaper edited by Timothy Thomas Fortune. Fortune was a radical reformer who founded the militant civil rights organization the National Afro-American League. Du Bois's first publication in the Globe was a short news item urging African-American men of Great Barrington to join a new "Law and Order society" to enforce laws against liquor selling. The article is the first public glimpse of Du Bois's youthful brand of Victorian reformism. In all, Du Bois would make 27 contributions to Fortune's paper between 1883 and 1885. In one of these we get a further glimpse into Du Bois's rising social and intellectual profile in the town: a report that he will take part in a local debate on the question, "Which is of the more use to a country, the Warrior, the Statesman, or the Poet?" — a reference to Percy Shelley's famous formulation.
Another figure who influenced Du Bois's budding career as an intellectual was a local historian, Charles Taylor, who had published a history of Great Barrington. Du Bois's affinity for Taylor was clear evidence of his desperate desire to find intellectual and scholarly inspiration in a small Great Barrington community of about 4,000 people. In The Souls of Black Folk, he would turn this autobiographical quest for knowledge into a parable of the wider yearning of the black race for education, formal schooling and "book learning" after emancipation.
Du Bois graduated high school in 1884 the only African-American student in his class. The subject of his commencement oration was the life of anti-slavery agitator Wendell Phillips, one of Du Bois's early heroes. It is important to note that 1884, the year of his commencement, was only 19 years after the end of the Civil War, and only seven years since the end of Reconstruction, the federal government plan to rebuild the South after the war to be discussed in detail later. Du Bois's childhood and adolescence, in other words, was lived in the shadow of slavery, and in a period of enormous national anxiety for both blacks and whites about the future of race relations. Du Bois's commitment to the study of the anti-slavery movement and figures like Phillips was symbolic of this moment of transformation and his own budding political consciousness. At the same time, Du Bois's early years were heavily shaped by the dominant mores of New England society. He thought of himself, in non-pejorative terms, as a native son of the United States, something of an aspiring intellectual rooted not necessarily in a black tradition of social resistance, to which he had not yet been exposed, but of general cultural learning characteristic of nineteenth-century literature society. He was in other words, for a black man of his time, extraordinary in his gifts, talents and aspirations, but in other regards for an American of the lower-middle classes, somewhat typical.
Encouraged by his mother and his own ambitions, Du Bois aspired to go to Harvard, hoping to reach the pinnacle of academic success, but his high school was below the University's entrance requirements. In defiance of his family's "Northern free Negro prejudice" against attending school in the "former land of slavery," Du Bois enrolled instead at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. The decision was Du Bois's first small rebellion against his New England upbringing, and showed his desire to enter the national post-Civil War stream of African-American racial uplift — the idea that through hard work, civic participation, and race leadership the lives of African-Americans could be improved.
Fisk had been established just three months after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation to provide higher education to newly-freed slaves. The establishment of what came to be known as "Historically Black Colleges and Universities" was itself part of the federal government Reconstruction effort. In explaining his decision to attend, Du Bois wrote, "Black folk were bound in time to play a large role in the South. They needed trained leadership. I was sent to help furnish it." Du Bois also found his personality and emotional life expanded and liberated by stepping for the first time into a bustling all-black world:
Consider, for a moment, how miraculous it all was to a boy of seventeen, just escaped from a narrow valley: I will and lo! my people came dancing about me, — riotous in color, gay in laughter, full of sympathy, need, and pleading; darkly delicious girls — "colored" girls — sat beside me and actually talked to me while I gazed in tongue-tied silence or babbled in boastful dreams. Boys with my own experience and out of my own world, who knew and understood, wrought out with me great remedies. I studied eagerly under teachers who bent in subtle sympathy, feeling themselves some shadow of the Veil and lifting it gently that we darker souls might peer through to other worlds.
At the same time, Du Bois's arrival for the first time in the South also triggered new ideas in his young mind about race and national identity:
I came to a region where the world was split into white and black halves, and where the darker half was held back by race prejudice and legal bonds, as well as by deep ignorance and dire poverty. But facing this was not a lost group, but at Fisk, a microcosm of a world and civilization in potentiality. Into this world I leapt with enthusiasm. A new loyalty and allegiance replaced my Americanism: hence-forward I was a Negro.
Du Bois's first encounter with Jim Crow thus produced a sense of what he calls in his famous 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk "double consciousness," a feeling that to be "an American, a negro" at the same time was to feel a sense of "twoness." His trip to the deeply segregated South also introduced a sharper feeling of alienation from the United States Eric Porter has called Du Bois's "disidentificatory Americanism." Du Bois initially embraced a strong group or "race" consciousness as a buffer against these effects, while perceiving that consciousness as a pathway into what he calls here "a world and civilization in potentiality."
These ideas help us locate Du Bois within larger currents of his time. At his commencement from Fisk in June 1888, Du Bois chose German Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck as the subject of his oration. "The choice in itself," Du Bois later wrote, "showed the abyss between my education and the truth in the world. Bismarck was my hero. He had made a nation out of a mass of bickering peoples." "This foreshadowed in my mind the kind of thing that American Negroes must do, marching forth with strength and determination under trained leadership." Initially missing from Du Bois's embrace of these ideas was any analysis of the costs of nation-building in the form of wars, empire-building, and slavery. Wrote Du Bois, "I was blithely European and imperialist in outlook ... I do not remember ever hearing Karl Marx mentioned nor socialism discussed."
Excerpted from "W.E.B. Du Bois"
Copyright © 2016 Bill V. Mullen.
Excerpted by permission of Pluto Press.
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Table of Contents
Preface: Revolutionary Lives Matter: Reclaiming W.E.B. Du Bois For Our Time Part I: Racial Uplift and the Reform Era 1. Childhood, Youth and Education in an Age of Reform 2. Becoming a Scholar and Activist 3. Socialism, Activism and World War I Part II: From Moscow to Manchester: 1917-1945 4. Du Bois and the Russian Revolution 5. The Depression, Black Reconstruction, and Du Bois’s Asia Turn 6. Pan-Africanism or Communism? Part III: Revolution and the Cold War 1945-1963 7. Wrestling with the Cold War, Stalinism, and the Blacklist 8. The East is Red: Supporting Revolutions in Asia 9. Final Years, Exile, Death and Legacy Notes Bibliography Index